Daisy Johnson is 24 and currently lives in Oxford. She has a degree in English from Lancaster University and an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford. She travelled around a lot as a child, but it was the landscape of the Fens that haunted her – ‘it’s an unquiet land land that dreams of being the coast’ – and it became the setting for her debut short story collection, Fen (Jonathan Cape). The startling stories are all about women and girls and are full of myth, dark magic and odd metamorphoses. Fittingly, as her filmic Alter Ego, she has chosen Leeloo from The Fifth Element. Eithne Farry
When left to my own devices I imagine my alter ego would be a Luc Besson character: Jacques from The Big Blue who dives without air, tries to have a normal life but cannot, dreams of water rising up the walls; Mathilda, who is only twelve but is already cut from cool: a sharp fringe, round glasses. ‘How old were you when you made your first hit?’ she asks Leon, listens to his reply, says: ‘Beat you!’
There is something though, isn’t there, about The Fifth Element’s Leeloo. Clad in some kind of bondage tape, falling through the roof of Bruce Willis’s taxi, very strong on issues of consent, keen on roast chicken.
As a child I learnt most of my vocabulary from books, which means that, sometimes, when I’m speaking, words come out wrong. This happens to Leeloo too, though it bothers her less. The world is under attack and only she can save the day. She isn’t entirely convinced, though, that she wants to. She says: ‘What’s the use in saving life when you see what you do with it?’ She is sparing with her words, speaks her mind, gathers material to her in a writer-like manner. In the end she is a hopeless romantic. Something, perhaps, about Bruce Willis’s bright orange vest.
If she was brought where we are, I think she would miss the bright colours and over-exaggerated emotions. She would become melancholic, binge on microwave food, get a couple of cats. She would – to remind her of the old days – prey on muggers, litterers, those with late library books. She would, for lack of use, slowly lose the language she’d learnt. I do not think she would miss it much.
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Musician and filmmaker Barry Adamson on Bernard Herrmann’s dizzying score for Hitchcock.
Vertigo is without doubt, Hitchcock’s masterpiece. A masterpiece because Hitchcock lets us into his (and our own) universal truth. He shows us his longing. A longing that can never be satiated. A longing that merely leaves us up in the air, frozen in time and space forever.
He dismisses conventional story telling structure. (Conventional film structure is three acts. You put a person up a tree. You throw rocks at them. You watch them try to make it down. Most first acts are over with pretty quickly so we can get on with the business of throwing rocks. Hitchcock putting Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie up a tree is to have him fish Kim Novak’s Madeleine, the woman he’s been following at a distance, out of San Francisco Bay, take her home, strip her naked and put her in his bed… after 46 minutes.) He then masterly creates his trademark suspense. In the last few acts, the audience knows something the protagonist doesn’t, after a remarkable disclosure of the film’s plot. Up until that point, there’s so much tension, intrigue and seduction manoeuvring. We’re watching a man watching a woman who’s keeping an eye on herself while observing another woman…
Bernard Herrmann said that whereas he wrote character music for Orson Welles, Hitchcock wanted place and situation and to feel the tension building. The music throughout the opening titles tells the whole story. The film is set in San Francisco. Herrmann builds a geographical, dreamlike and suspenseful motive around ‘contrary motion’. One motif plays six notes up and down the scale as the other motif (same notes) comes down and up the scale and this alludes to the idea of physical vertigo as well as a kind of teetering on the edge, both emotionally and mentally.
He then adds the ‘doomed love’ theme in four notes, ending the phrase with a dissonant death chord. It would seem to be the end, and of course later in the piece it really is BUT… he then arranges for ‘trilling’ violins to animate and rise from a pit of desire, into omnipotence. They begin skipping carelessly as if to mock the idea of death as finite. This is short-lived, however, as again doom now plays out before the final death knell rings.
This happens over swirling graphics and close-ups of a woman’s mouth and eyes. What’s this film about again? A fear of heights? No. Fear of falling… in love.
The other part of the score is the brilliant Carlotta Valdes theme, which Herrmann uses as a link to the past and then turns it into a hallucination, another kind of vertigo for Kim Novak. Scottie’s toxic seduction is played out over a stealing of Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde. Herrmann uses the ‘love/death’ theme, which he rewrites and extends as mere metaphor, gluing together the idea of Madeleine’s obsession with the past and Scottie’s idea that the dead can be brought back and made alive again…
The Soundtrack season at HOME Manchester has been co-curated by Barry Adamson and HOME’s Artistic Director of Film Jason Wood.
Black and white and enigmatic, Suture was one of the most singular debuts of American independent cinema at the time. Jason Wood talks to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel about identity, improbable gestures and ‘Ring of Fire’.
Jason Wood: What was the starting point for Suture? The synthesis of film noir and avant-garde cinema suggests that you are both keen cineastes, but the film also expresses an interest in issues relating to identity and wider philosophical concepts.
Scot McGehee/David Siegel: More than anything, Suture grew out of the films we were watching together at the time: some Japanese art films from the 60s, and also American paranoid thrillers, and every twin film we could get our hands on. We were thinking a lot about identity as a construct, and how film constructs identity; and certain narrative tropes started interesting us: hypnosis, twins, amnesia. Out of that stew, the basic plot sort of emerged fully formed.
Was it always your intention to have Clay and Vincent portrayed by actors who were black and white? Your tone here is often quite playful, but it also introduces an interesting take on racial politics that was considered quite potent for its time.
Clay and Vincent being portrayed by actors who were black and white was an idea we had while we were writing. It was an idea that we started out loving but not taking completely seriously. But it stayed in our heads. The humour of it, the ways in which it let the story be a little out of control. And the more we lived with it, and the more we worked on the script, the less we could imagine doing the film any other way. People tried to talk us out of it, of course.
The cinematography by Greg Gardiner is striking. How did you come to work with him and what instructions did you give him in terms of the look and tone you wanted to achieve? Was it always your intention to shoot in black and white?
We decided while writing that we were making a black and white film. More specifically, we decided we were making a black and white Scope film. At the time, we couldn’t think of one that had been made (in the United States, at least) since Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). All the Japanese films we had been watching were black and white Scope, and we loved the look of it, and loved the idea of using a very graphic wide-screen frame to shoot a fairly intimate drama.
Greg Gardiner was one of many people who interviewed for the job, but he talked to us from the beginning as though we were already working together. And though he hadn’t shot many films at that point, he’d had a very successful career as a gaffer. That experience was very appealing, because the light in the movie was something we hoped could really contribute to the emotional feel of the story. We spoke with Greg a lot about shooting the film in ‘white and black’, trying to capture a world of confidence and analysis rather than a more traditional ‘noir’ world of mystery and shadow.
One of the other aspects of Suture that most impresses is Kelly McGehee’s production design and the general use of locations and interiors. Can you say something about the buildings in which you shot (Vincent’s apartment is particularly striking) and what sense you wanted these locations and mise en scène to communicate?
We shot the film in Phoenix Arizona at a time when the city was very depressed financially, so the central downtown area was quite eerie and deserted, but it still had that crisp, clean, arid feeling of a desert city. The location we used for Vincent’s house was a vacant Savings and Loan office. We shot many of our interiors in vacant office spaces, which had a nice anonymous quality and were available at a very good price. We wanted the film to exist in a psychological space more than a realistic one, so the gestures could be big, graphic and improbable.
We had worked with Kelly on both of our short films, so we all kind of grew up together and our creative collaboration was already a number of years old when we began Suture. And she had been involved in the thinking for the film as we were writing, so a good deal of the design foundation had been laid long before we ever got to Phoenix.
The final face-off between Vincent and Clay is brilliantly realised. Was this a difficult sequence to execute?
Most of the sequence is fairly straight-forward shooting, with the exception of the last overhead shot in the bathroom. That’s an image that we’d written quite precisely into the screenplay. Despite our low budget, the bathroom was the one set we insisted on building, just to be able to realise that shot. To do it, we had to fix-mount the camera on scaffolding about 20 feet above the stage, rigging it quite precariously in a way that didn’t allow for any direct looking through the viewfinder. It wasn’t until the video tap was attached that we could actually see the shot: Vincent walking towards Clay, separated by the shower curtain, each with his gun drawn. We were both kind of flipped out by how intact the original written shot had remained, and how connected we both still felt to it. It became this very emotional moment for us, and is still one of our fondest production memories.
The song ‘Ring of Fire’ plays a prominent role. You use both the Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions. What was the thinking behind this?
Johnny Cash is The Man in Black. Tom Jones is a Welsh soul singer. We loved both versions of the song, and liked the pun of the car-phone bomb transforming Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ into Tom Jones’s version, much as Clay was about to become Vincent. Chalk it up to the juvenile sense of humour of first-time filmmakers, but it all felt right. In the end, we probably paid more for the rights to the various versions than we actually earned making the movie. But it still seems worth it.
Steven Soderbergh came on board as an executive producer. What function did he perform and how beneficial did it prove to have his name attached to the project?
We had brought the film to a rough-cut state and were in the process of trying to raise money when we met Steven. We knew someone who knew someone who was close to him, and that person managed to convince him to come to a screening. The screening turned out to be a technical disaster: reels projected out of order, the wrong gate in the projector. Afterwards, Steven suggested we meet for coffee the next morning, and we were sure we would get a polite, collegial brush off. Instead, he told us he had spoken to his accountant about mortgaging his house to help us finish the film. The accountant had apparently talked him out of that scheme, but Steven adopted us anyway, and stuck with us for months as we continued cutting. We finally raised the finishing funds through a contact of his in France. He was an invaluable and tireless supporter, and a true friend.
Is the climate in which you made Suture very different to the one in which you currently find yourselves working? Looking back on the experience, what do you most recall about the making of the film and its critical and commercial reception?
The whole experience of making and releasing Suture was a series of firsts for us. Reviews, festivals, publicists. Though it didn’t perform well at the box office in the US, we had been to Telluride, Cannes and Sundance. It was all gratifying and fresh, and ultimately it opened doors to people within the industry who were interested in helping us make more movies. Looking back, we can see that we were lucky to have had that first experience within an independent film world that was considerably smaller than today (and friendlier, in a way). No independent film had made $100 million at the box office at that point (or anything even close), so the expectations were lower and the approach to independent filmmakers was, perhaps, less restrictive.
Neither of us had gone to film school or had any real training or apprenticeship in the film business. We had only made two short films when the production began, and so, often, we found ourselves learning how to do things only one step ahead of actually doing them. Sometimes less than a step. But the people we worked with during the making of the film, and the people who helped us get it out into the world, were for the most part incredibly open, generous and collaborative. Looking back on Suture, we find it hard not to remember how much fun we had.
Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.
Writers: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
France, Denmark, USA 2016
The composer and musician talks about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
Cliff Martinez started his career drumming for Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Captain Beefheart before making his big leap into cinema, writing the music for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Limey, Traffic and Solaris, . He’s since formed a close bond with Nicolas Winding Refn, composing the scores for Drive and Only God Forgives. Their latest collaboration, Refn’s shiny new offering The Neon Demon, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has an intriguing, pulsing electronic score that is haunting and emotional in equal measure, while the film itself unexpectedly divides critics and audiences alike.
Pamela Jahn spoke to the composer and musician about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
The Neon Demon is your third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Did the fact that it features women rather than men in the lead role, which is quite unusual compared to Refn’s work in the past, change your way of approaching the music for this film?
Cliff Martinez: No, Nicolas had told me very early on in the process, ‘This is going to be a very different film because the subject is going to be women.’ And when he told me that, I was curious what it would be like. But then when I got to saw the film and I saw the shower scene and things like that, I thought, ok, so that’s how Nicholas is making a film about women, of course. So, no, for me it didn’t feel so much different. It was more a departure for Nicholas himself, I think.
Do you think there is a specific link between electronic music and fashion in the way those two worlds seem to complement each other?
Oh, I never thought of that, but it’s an interesting idea. Maybe there is some sort of connection, I don’t know.
The music to Drive is widely regarded as one of the greatest scores of its time. Did it feel special to you when creating it?
I loved Drive from the minute I saw it, but I don’t think anyone imagined at the time how successful the film was going to be, or at least certainly I didn’t have a clue. It was just a great project to be working on. I’ve never really grasped quite why that particular score got so popular. And I’m still kind of fascinated by the fact that in my 25 years of working as a composer, that’s the one score that people keep talking about.
In 2014, the BBC created a televised re-score of the original Drive soundtrack – what did you make of that new version?
I’ve heard of it but I’ve never actually seen this new version, so I don’t know. I heard that it was re-scored but that’s about it.
You also worked with Nicolas on Only Good Forgives, which has these great karaoke moments. Were you involved in creating these scenes?
As I recall it, the script and the actual film turned out very different from each other, but I think the karaoke material was there from the very beginning. I remember that it was the first thing that I did when I started working on the project. I usually don’t come in until the film has been shot but this time the ground floor was really the script, because there were several karaoke scenes that they needed the music for so they could shoot. I’d never done any karaoke for film before and I remember in the beginning Nicolas had this idea about iconic country western songs but then he decided to go with Thai music instead. So, I think I created five of these Thai karaoke tracks, each track was then tested and got changed several times to be performed at the karaoke bar, but in the end I think we used the original tracks.
You started your career as a composer working with Steven Soderbergh. Was he your first sort of soulmate in cinema, in a similar way that Nicolas seems to be now?
I don’t know, we just seem to work together very well. We seem to agree on films, their philosophy, musical genres and so on. We have a similar taste, I guess.
You’re currently working with Soderbergh on the TV series The Knick. Does it make a difference to you if you compose for the big or small screen, apart from the fact that it’s a longer process?
That’s the thing, it’s more exhausting than feature-film work but, in the end, it just feels like a ten-hour Soderbergh film to me. But there are some differences as well, I guess, one of which being that you have to mix the score so it sounds right on very small speakers, because most people will see it on their normal TV at home. And you also really have to develop your theme and your emotional peaks and stretch them over ten hours as opposed to two hours.
You are working across the board, from cinema to TV and video games. How do you choose your projects?
To be honest, it’s more that people chose me rather than me selecting things. Directors like Steven, Nicolas or Harmony Korine, for whom I composed the score for Spring Breakers, have asked me to score their films. So I feel that if I have worked on these great projects, it’s not so much because of my decisions, but because people have chosen me and trusted me with what I can bring to their work.
Was there a score when you were younger that first made that feeling, that relationship between music and movies, click for you?
There are a couple of films or film scores that come up actually, like the old scores by Bernard Herrmann and especially Ennio Morricone. One of the first film scores that I owned on vinyl when I was young was A Fistful of Dollars. Another thing that resonated with me from the beginning was the TV show Saturday Night at the Movies. I would watch The Day the Earth Stood Still three or four times a year, and the music just got to me, I listened to it every time it came on.
A film might be flawed but the music can still be brilliant. What do you think the score can bring to the movie as a whole?
Well, the score depends on the film. The music has a significant role, especially if there is not much dialogue. People turn to the music to maybe explain a bit more about what’s going on.
Do you think a great score can save a film from being terrible?
No, I don’t think the music has the power to salvage a terrible film, but I do believe it has the ability to completely transform a film. It’s hard to explain what it is, I didn’t understand it myself until I saw a film without music and then with the music, but when you do that, you can appreciate the power of music. But still, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that music can rescue an utterly flawed film and turn it into an entertaining, successful film – no musical score can do that.
Interview by Pamela Jahn
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A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews